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Growing Community Schools

These schools deliver academic improvement, increased attendance and reduced mobility.

Education cannot succeed if schools ignore the realities of 21st century families and communities, contends Martin Blank, staff director of the Coalition for Community Schools. The flip side? Schools can nurture success among the entire student population by mobilizing community assets to support students and their families. These principles drive the community school model.

The heart of the community school is a set of partnerships between the school and community organizations to create an integrated program that combines academic and family support. Another essential ingredient is the extended schedule. Most community schools offer a variety of before school and after-school services to support students and their families. At the same time, each community school is unique, sculpted to local needs.

Districts across the country have embraced the community school model and shared their strategies and results in the recently released Growing Community Schools report.

Here, District Administration peeks inside a few districts employing this model.

Community on the Mega-Level

More than 100 Chicago K-8 elementary schools have adopted the community school model, and the district aims to expand it to all its 500 elementary schools. The goal, explains Beth Swanson, director of after-school and community school programs for Chicago Public Schools, is to remove barriers to school success.

Most schools collaborate with a lead non-profit like a YMCA or neighborhood association; an additional 300 non-profits district-wide participate in one-day events such as health fairs or violence prevention programming based on school needs. Site-based oversight committees, consisting of parents, staff and community members, provide guidance and assistance to fine-tune the model to local needs.

Spry School, a 99 percent Mexican-American K-12 school, partners with Alivio Health Clinic to deliver on-site healthcare. The coffee is always on in the school's parent resource center, where parents can learn about educational and family support resources. Herzl Elementary, a predominantly African-American school, has employed a different approach, partnering with School of Community and Arts Partnership at Columbia College to immerse students in artistic and cultural experiences.

Cincinnati's $1 Billion Plan

The Cincinnati (Ohio) Public Schools is investing $1 billion in a facilities master plan to infuse community schools across the district. "This is a grassroots initiative that we are taking to the community. Staff and parents will define what the schools will look like," explains Superintendent Rosa Blackwell. Each new and renovated school will include a specific space for the community and will embody the local vision of a community school.

In one community the vision called for a pre-K to 12 school. Others incorporate on-site medical and dental clinics or community gardens. Multiple partners like early learning centers, healthcare providers and the city support each school. The end result is that families will want to live and work in the city, predicts Blackwell.

Diversity and the Small City

Demographics confound the small city of Tukwila, Wash. The school district consists of three elementary schools, a middle school and high school. Eighty percent to 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 30 different primary languages are spoken in the community.

Six years ago, at the start of the community school project, student mobility was an alarming 44 percent. The newly formed Tukwila School-Community Collaboration aimed to build a sense of community around schools and increase opportunities for students and residents. Results are promising.

Overall mobility has dropped to 23 percent and plummeted to a mere 5 percent among participants in the district's extended-day program, reports Mayor Steven Mullet. What's more, 95 percent of families cited school as the primary reason for remaining in the community.

Investing in Community Schools

A community school requires a substantial commitment of money and time. Tukwila and Chicago cover costs through grants and city commitments. And Cincinnati went to voters for a $1 billion bond to construct community schools. While necessary, money alone doesn't create community schools.

Leaders at all levels must commit to the model, says Blank. While community leaders from school boards, government and businesses lead the charge, school staff and community organizations focus on forging new relationships and connecting students and families to resources.

The process may take different forms depending on a district's specific needs and resources. For example, Portland (Ore.) started with funding and hired coordinators early in the process. Other districts may begin by formalizing existing loose partnerships with community organizations.

Most variations of the formula work, producing a locally inspired school that gathers and centralizes resources to improve student outcomes. In the end, results adhere to a common pattern. Districts report positive academic, social and health results-outcomes that benefit the district and the community.

Lisa Fratt is a contributing editor.